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Tuesday, August 2, 2011
University of Haifa Media release: Where did the Roman Legion find wood for their siege on Masada?

Division of Marketing and Media
August 2, 2011
Media release

Where did the timber for the Roman rampart at Masada come from?

Earlier studies claimed that the Judean Desert was much more humid 2,000
years ago, but a new study has revealed: The Romans reaching Masada faced
arid desert conditions that could not supply timber for their siege, and the
isotopic composition of the wood probably reflects a distant wood source.

The Roman Legion that lay siege on Masada some 2,000 years ago was forced to
use timber from other areas in the land of Israel for its weapons and
encampments, and was not able to use local wood as earlier studies have
proposed. This has been revealed in a new study conducted at the University
of Haifa, refuting earlier suggestions that described the Judean Desert area
as more humid in the times of the Second Temple.

Despite all the historic and archaeological evidence that has been revealed
about the Roman siege on Masada, scholars are at difference over the large
quantities of timber and firewood that were required for the Jewish fortress
defenders on the mountain and for the Roman besiegers. A previous study by
researchers from the Weizmann Institute of wooden remains found on the siege
rampart showed that they originated from a more humid habitat, and assuming
that the timber was local, claimed that this was proof of the Judean region
being more humid some 2,000 years ago. The University of Haifa researchers
maintain that the wood originated in a more humid region: not from the local
habitat but brought from a more humid region to the foot of Masada by the
well-organized Roman military supply unit.

The new study, conducted by Prof. Simcha Lev-Yadun of the University of
Haifa's Department of Biology and Environment at the University of
Haifa-Oranim, Prof. Mina Weinstein-Evron of the Zinman Institute of
Archaeology at the University of Haifa, and D. S. Lucas, a student from Ohio
University, included botanic, archaeological and cultural examination and
modeling to verify by means of comparison to parallel traditional societies,
the uses of timber and firewood from the beginning of settlement at Masada,
some 220 years before the siege, and until its fall.

First, the researchers examined the amount of wood that exists today in the
Judean Desert and in the wadi deltas in the vicinity of Masada, and thereby
were able to estimate the amount and types of wood that the desert could
supply. Next, they calculated the amount of timber and firewood that would
have been needed for the inhabitants of Masada, from 150 BCE, when it was a
small fortress, through the Herodian period, when the fortress as we know it
was constructed, and up to the siege, which ended in 73 CE. According to the
researchers, in those times, timber was mostly used for construction,
heating and cooking. Based on accepted evaluations of wood consumption for
these purposes in traditional societies, on the conservatively estimated
number of Masada inhabitants in each time period, the harsh climatic
conditions in the desert and Masada's topography, the researchers were able
to conclude that by the time the Romans arrived at Masada and began their
siege (73 CE), the entire area was void of timber and firewood, due to 2,220
years of massive exploitation of the immediate environment up to that
point. The Romans would have had no choice but to import wood from other
areas for their weapon machinery, ramparts and basic living requirements.

The researchers were able to construct a model of the Roman Legion's timber
utilization in various siege scenarios, and concluded that even if the
Masada area had more than its normal availability of wood, it still would
not have been sufficient for the Romans' needs, so that in any event, they
would have been forced to ensure a continuous supply of wood. As such, the
researchers explained, the earlier claim that the region of Masada was more
humid some 2,000 years ago, was in all probability not well established.

For more information:

Rachel Feldman
Division of Marketing and Media
University of Haifa
press@univ.haifa.ac.il
+972-54-5352435

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